A new study takes a deep dive into the extent of China’s disinformation campaigns

Although Russian online influence operations have been making headlines over recent years, China is actively exploiting social media in an effort to sway Western opinions, researchers claim.

A new study by Recorded Future’s Insikt Group, out Wednesday, presents rare insight into China’s Western-focused, internet-based influence operations – something the researchers say existed long before Moscow entered the social media fray.

According to the report, English language social media influence operations are seeded by state-run media outlets, which overwhelmingly present a “positive, benign, and cooperative image of China”.

Advocates of the ‘Chinese dream’ urge that a prosperous and strong China is good for the world and does not pose a threat to any other nation, partly because the country will supposedly never seek territorial expansion.

In terms of the motivations behind the campaigns, the researchers say China is seeking greater influence on the current international system, whereas Russia is seeking to overturn the status quo. As such, the two countries are operating from a different playbook.

“China’s message to the world is positive, and argues that China’s rise will be beneficial, cooperative, and constructive for the global community,” the study claims. “In comparison, Russia’s strategic goals are more combative, revolutionary, and disruptive.”

However, this is all far from benign cheerleading. According to Recorded Future, China is using its state-run media to exploit the openness of US democratic society and insert an intentionally distorted and biased narrative “for hostile political purposes”.

Chinese trolls kept in-house

China’s attempts to influence foreign opinion are markedly different from the techniques that are utilized domestically, Recorded Future said.

In addition to the constraints imposed by the Great Firewall and content censorship, the Chinese state also employs a series of active disinformation and distortion measures to influence domestic social media users.

Internationally, the goal is to present an “intentionally distorted and biased narrative portraying a utopia view of Chinese government and [Communist] party”. The techniques of censorship, filtering, astroturfing, and comment flooding that the Chinese government employs domestically are simply not viable outside the country.

“While the seed material for the influence campaigns is the same, state-run media content, there is likely no English language equivalent to the 50 Cent Party or army of social media commenters,” according to Recorded Future.

”This is not a conclusion that China’s policies, messages, propaganda, and media do not have social media defenders,” it added.

The 50 Cent Party is a domestic group hired by the Chinese government to “surreptitiously post large numbers of fabricated social media comments, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary Chinese people”.

Running the abacus

Recorded Future analyzed data from several western social media platforms from October 1, 2018, through January 21, 2019, to determine how the Chinese state exploits social media to influence the US public.

The company’s research focused on the English language social media activity of six major Chinese state-run news outlets: Xinhua, People’s Daily, China Global Television, China Central Television, China Plus News, and the Global Times. The six organizations collectively made more than 40,000 posts.

These social media posts tend to celebrate China’s vast natural beauty; rich cultural traditions and heritage; overseas visits by Chinese leaders or visits of foreign leaders to the country; the positive impact China is having on the world in science, technology, and sport; and breaking global news.

“Each account typically presented its own ‘take’ or message depending upon the specialization of the media outlet,” according to Recorded Future.

“For example, the People’s Daily propagated a greater percentage of apolitical, human interest, positive China stories (using hashtags such as #heartwarmingmoments and #AmazingChina) than other outlets, while Xinhua propagated a higher percentage of breaking news stories.”

Chinese influence accounts used paid advertisements to “target American users with political or nationally important messages and distorted general news about China”, according to Recorded Future.

The country’s state-sponsored social media activity was shown to be responsive to international events – in particular the December 2018 arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada.

“For the prior two months, Huawei was mentioned minimally in social media posts only by the Global Times and China Plus News,” Recorded Future said. “Beginning in December, Huawei became a top topic of influence messaging for all accounts, a trend which continued to the end of the study’s timeframe.”

Softly, softly

Although the Recorded Future study paints China as a powerhouse of propaganda, the country’s state-run ‘influence accounts’ did not attempt any large-scale campaign to influence American voters in the run-up to the November 2018 midterm elections.

The Global Times promoted an article that referred to President Trump as “unstable” and his policies as “volatile and erratic”, but this represented a rare example of personal criticism.

More frequently, Chinese media argued that a trade war between China and the US would harm both countries, aside from being unjustified.

“Chinese content largely did not express a preference for one candidate or party over another,” according to Recorded Future.

“Aside from the comments about President Trump, which have been widely disseminated in Chinese media since 2017, the articles expressed concern or perspectives in relation to issues China was concerned with, such as the trade war.”

“The scale of this content and its dissemination was very limited. Most of these posts were not widely reposted, favorited, or liked and the actual impact was likely minimal on American voters,” it added.

This contrasted with the Russian technique during the 2018 midterms of “disseminating hyper-partisan perspectives on legitimate news stories from domestic American news sites”, according to Recorded Future, in reference in the activities of right-wing Russian trolls linked to the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency.

“Russia’s strategic goals require covert actions and are inherently disruptive, therefore the social media influence techniques employed are secretive and disruptive as well.”

Recorded Future concludes that its research demonstrates that “social media influence campaigns are not a one-size-fits-all technique”.

“The intense focus on Russian campaigns has led to many to assume that because Russia was (arguably) so effective at manipulating social media, that other nations must utilize the same tactics,” the study concludes.

“National interests and strategy drive social media influence operations in the same way that they drive traditional intelligence, military, and cyber operations. As a result, each nation’s influence operations use different tactics and techniques because the broad strategic goals they are supporting are all different.”

Priscilla Moriuchi, Recorded Future’s director of strategic threat development, presented the threat intel firm’s research into China’s social media influence operations at the RSA Conference in San Francisco on Wednesday.

Moriuchi headed up the NSA’s East Asia and Pacific cyber threats office prior to moving to the private sector.